Co-op Spotlight: Waterloo Biz Student Learns To Live The Pura Vida In Costa Rica


Co-operative education programs are a great opportunity for students to gain work experience while applying classroom knowledge.

With the help of her professor, Jennifer Mansell, a fourth-year honours co-op environment and business student at the University of Waterloo, was able to work in Turrialba, Costa Rica, as an intern for the Competitiveness of Eco-Enterprises at the Centre for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Learning (CATIE).

Q. What were you looking for when first considering a work term?
A. I was looking for a placement that would provide me with more than simply workplace experience and skills. I felt that I was beginning to develop an interest in global environmental issues and policy, and was looking for something that would allow me to broaden my understanding of the international community. I thought to myself, what better way to do this than to live and work abroad for a term, and genuinely experience the challenges faced by the developing world. I felt that living in North America with all the luxuries of a developed nation had made me naïve to how a huge portion of the world population lived. I wanted this experience to grow as an individual and understand these inequalities first hand.

Q. Why did you choose to complete your work term at CATIE?
A. Once I had decided that I was determined to complete my next work term abroad, I started to look for potential placements. The university’s international placements through the co-op system were quite limited, so I realized this was something I had to set up and pursue myself.

I remembered that a professor of mine from the previous academic term, Maren Oelbermann, had always included pictures of the work she had done in Central and South America in her lecture slides, so I decided to contact her first to gather suggestions and advice to start my search. I was fortunate enough for her to provide me with a couple of business names and contacts of places where she knew previous students had worked. One of the places was CATIE, where she had actually worked and done research herself.

From that point on, I took on the responsibility of contacting these places (providing them information about myself, what I hoped to do, asking if they were willing to take me on as an intern, etc.) and CATIE responded back to me saying they would be more than happy to take me on for a volunteer work term. I accepted, and then continued to work with them for the next 4 months to hammer out the details of the work term.

Q. What were some of your main responsibilities while on work term?
A. I became a member of CeCoEco (Centre for Competitiveness of Eco-Enterprises) which was a department of three or four full-time employees, a masters student, and a PhD student. The department worked with small environmentally-conscious companies (some of which were farmers, for example) and helped them with business activities such as finance, business planning and certification (organic, fair trade, etc).

By assisting these companies, we could help them gain a larger market share, become more competitive and increase their profit returns. The department worked in two fields: agricultural products, and forestry products. Examples of some of the work I did at CATIE includes assisting in the design of a new website platform and literature reviews. I was also able to participate in bird monitoring research in the coffee plantations.

Q. What was the work environment like there?
A. I was the youngest person working at CATIE and the only one who was doing an international co-op placement. CATIE is located in Turrialba, Costa Rica, which is a very small, non-wealthy, town at the base of a volcano. The town is named after this volcano (Turrialba Volcano), which translates roughly to something like “white tower” because it is still an active volcano and white plumes of smoke can often be seen coming from the volcano.

Situated in rural Costa Rica, there were practically no tourists and thus very little English spoken. I remember the first week of work I was having such difficulty communicating with my boss at CATIE that it … made me want to get on a plane that day and fly back home.

I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing, what the objectives of the department were. I was overwhelmed by the differences in lifestyles and customs, and the individual who I had been corresponding with for months (one of the few who spoke English) was on vacation for the next three weeks. I felt completely lost.

But after toughing out the first week, things started to pick up, and by the end of the second week it had already turned into a very positive experience.

Q. What was it like working abroad? Was it difficult to adjust? What helped you to make the transition?
A. As mentioned above, there was a huge culture shock that I had to adjust to. The food was different, the customs and values were different, and the lifestyle was completely different. Things that we take for granted, such as hot water for a shower, were luxuries in Costa Rica.

Grocery shopping was an interesting experience. Unlike the enormous, endless selection of products we have at our grocery stores here in Canada, Costa Rica was a completely different story. The items that I could buy at the grocery store were extremely limited in selection. All fruit and vegetables were bought fresh from the local farmer’s market. I could buy a whole row of 20 bananas taken right off the tree for the equivalent of 50 cents.

The level of cleanliness was also a big change for me. Since I was living in such a hot, humid climate, it is impossible to keep surfaces spotless clean like we have here in our business buildings. I had to get use to seeing algae and various things growing over any and all surfaces.

Windows did not have screens. Instead they were panes of glass which simply swiveled open. Thus, I became very familiar to living with all kinds of bugs. I had spiders living on the ceiling of my bedroom, ants that would run all over my work desk all day long, and it was not uncommon to see a gecko skitter across the floor when you walked the hallways.

Adjusting to all this was difficult, but there were a few key things which helped me make this transition. I took Spanish language courses before I left. Although there was still a language barrier when I arrived, having taken these courses helped to quickly demolish this barrier. Within the first month I was comfortably speaking Spanish with the locals, and every day I was expanding my knowledge and vocabulary.

The second key to my adjustment was the absolutely friendly, personable, beyond accommodating disposition of the Costa Rican people. They … were always ready to share their meals, company and a good laugh. Experiencing this kind of camaraderie with people that I barely knew really helped me to feel comfortable and accepted, and genuinely happy.

Q. What was the coolest thing you did while on work term?
A. Since my work term was volunteer based, my superiors were very open to me taking a couple days off here and there to do some traveling and explore more of Costa Rica. One of the most memorable trips that I made was going to Irazú Volcano. Irazú is just over 3,400 meters high at the summit, above both the tree line and frost line, making it bitter cold. I even experienced a bit of altitude sickness.

The view is absolutely spectacular though; from one direction, the pool of water in the craters would appear more of a green colour (apparently reflecting the colour from the Caribbean Sea), while from the other direction it appears blue (reflecting the colour of the opposite direction, the ocean). I remember too that everything there (the earth, rocks, sand, etc.) were completely pitch black in colour. It was amazing.

Q. What skills did you develop or strengthen while on your work term?
A. One of the most important skills that was further developed was my patience. This may seem like a silly answer, but people of that culture have a different philosophy on life, and run on what they call “Tico Time.” I had to try to slow myself down because, if I finished my work too quickly, I would not have more work until a few weeks later because everyone else moved at a slower pace and would not have their contributions ready until a later date. People never had schedules or “to do” lists, they simply worked and lived at a relaxed pace, unconcerned with time. I’m not sure anyone there even wore a watch.

One of the locals told me that people in the Western cultures are too busy, too stressed and too focused on living their lives to work. He told me that in Costa Rica they lived by the motto “pura vida,” which translates to “pure life.” What they mean by this is to slow down, let go of stress and enjoy your life. Enjoy the people and the beauty in your life, and take the time to recognize that it’s there. In English, I suppose it would translate to something like, “Don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.”

Although I thoroughly enjoyed living my life by this philosophy, I found it difficult and frustrating to make any sort of plans with people. If you were throwing a dinner party and asked your guests to arrive at 7 p.m., you could expect them to show up two or three hours later. This was not because they were being rude or didn’t think your event was important, it was simply just a fact of life that, in Costa Rica, punctuality does not exist.

Q. How did this work term help you in choosing a career path?
A. This work term opened my eyes to a world that I knew existed but never before had the chance to experience. To be able to see the shabby, mismatched housing that the majority of the residents lived in, and the low level of wealth that they lived off of was a changing experience. These people had virtually none of the luxuries I enjoyed in my home, and yet they lead a much fuller, happier life in some senses. It was their family and friends that made them, not their material possessions. Seeing this only made me even more motivated to pursue a career in international development in order to bring more equality to world policies that ultimately shapes these struggling nations.

Q. Do you think your experiences have helped prepare you for seeking work in the real world?
A. Absolutely. Everything in this world is interconnected in some shape or form, but especially through business transactions. The decisions that you make in your career could affect other people halfway around the world. How can one be confident in their decision-making abilities if they’ve only been living inside a little bubble (i.e., North America)? There are so many other parts of the world that operate on a completely different level, and I think it is important to experience them in order to gain a true understanding of the world and become an educated global citizen. Once you have obtained this, you can reflect on this knowledge to ultimately make the best informed decisions in everything that you do.

Q. Where do you see yourself after graduation? What are your plans for the future?
A. My anticipated graduation date is April 2011. After this time, I plan to continue pursuing school. I truly enjoy learning, and believe that any knowledge is useful knowledge. International development and global environmental politics is definitely a strong interest of mine that appeals to my desire for a career with significant, meaningful accomplishments. Thus, logically the next step would be to pursuer a Masters in something of this nature. However, I am also absolutely fascinated with the health industry and have recently been considering going back to school for something in this field. In either case, I feel I will be able to obtain a meaningful career where I am able to assist others in significant ways – which is my ultimate goal to achieve personal satisfaction. I want to know that my work is important and is beneficial not just to myself, but to others as well.

If you want to read more about Jenn’s experiences in Costa Rica, you can check them out here.